To open-office or not? That is the question. Open-office spaces seem to be the default option for every tech startup and modern-day business. Why do new companies prefer them? Will this trend persist? How do employees feel about them after all? What is their real effect on productivity and collaboration? We discuss this below.

The Origins of the Open-Office space

Although they are 'trendy', they are not a new concept. They go back to early 20th century modernist architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright who deemed walls and rooms as ‘fascist’. The design of open office spaces came from a good place - that of breaking down walls in order to break down social walls (George Musser, Scientific American, 2009). The idea behind it was that open office spaces would in turn entice collaboration and collective intelligence.

open-office space with large windows and people working

This notion was then adopted by businesses for a less democratic ideology - that of fitting in as many workers as possible. This quickly became the infamous cubicle. Soon enough, new startups and companies which wanted to (quite literally) turn the tables and revert back to open space offices. This was an answer to many communication problems that were thought to be caused by cubicles.

What do employees think about open-office spaces?

However - there are downsides. According to a BOSPAR PR survey, 76% of Americans said they “hate open offices”, the main reasons cited were ‘lack of privacy’, ‘overhearing too many personal conversations’, ‘cannot concentrate’, ‘worries that sensitive information can be leaked’ and that they ‘can’t do their best thinking’. Random phone calls, co-workers discussing around you and general noise such as walking, drawers opening, typing, chewing and so on will most definitely add up.

collaborating at work, three men at work

Their effect on collaboration

Another downside is the decrease of the face-to-face interaction. Bernstein and Turban in “The impact of the open workspace on human collaboration” study the global headquarters of OpenCo1 and OpenCo2, two Fortune 500 multinationals. The companies transformed an entire floor in its headquarters into a boundary-less, transparent, open plan space. The study analysed interactions through the participants wearing a sociometric badge, over 15 days. It turned out that participants now spent 72% less time interacting face-to-face but sent 56% more emails and received 20% more emails from other participants. Instant messaging increased by 67%.

The company reported later that productivity had declined when spatial boundaries were eliminated. Geoffrey James from Inc. also adds that open plan offices are both a “productivity disaster and a false economy” because the productivity drain costs the company more than the square metres of space.

So if you’re thinking of going for an open-office space you may want to consider the following too. With everyone being in one big office, people are more likely to get sick (62% more). The other downside is that they translate to a lack of trust. “Collaborative work areas” may seem to be the product of a micro-manager who wants to know what his team is doing at all times.

Advocates of the Open-Space office

Having laid down the cons, there are still a few avid advocates of the open-office space. Namely, what probably led you here - Facebook! Lori Goler, Facebook’s chief people officer said “It really creates an environment where people can collaborate; they can innovate together. There’s a lot of spontaneity in the way people bump into each other, just a really fun collaborative creative space.” 

Another upside is that open offices are more cost-effective at their core. This is primarily due to the lack of individual desks, less construction to be done and air-conditioning. For this reason alone they remain a popular choice among many companies.

No obstacles: Facebook's open-space headquarters in Menlo Park, California
Facebook's open-office setup in Menlo Park, California. Image - Washington Post

It all boils down to....

The question is whether the company is willing to go for a more cost-effective option at the expense of productivity. The bottom line is that each company has its own brand of culture which translates into different office requirements. It is truly a matter of balancing the employees’ needs and requirements and align them with industry requirements and what the business needs. There is no one perfect template for the ideal office space.

Read more about how the workplace environment forms the company culture here.

What do you think? Do you prefer large open-office spaces or smaller offices? What do you like or don’t like about them? Let us know!